Experience the Awe and Wonder of the National Parks
Tips for planning, packing, and having an awesome time in the national parks.
My husband and I recently added Congaree National NP and Mammoth Cave NP making it a total of 21 parks visited so far.
Our journey to America’s beautiful national parks began in 2010. We hiked in Grand Canyon NP in Arizona and strolled in Arches NP in Utah.
Nine summers of vacationing and hiking in the national parks have made us “experts” on how to plan, pack, find accommodations, hike trails safely, have safe encounters with bears, get sworn in as not-so-junior rangers, and much more.
Planning Your Trip to a National Park
Plan around the time of year best for you and/or your family.
The best time for us is July/August when I’m off for the summer and when my husband is able to get away from his busy work schedule. The parks may be packed but we don’t mind.
Pick a park and decide on the best way to get to the park. Is it best to fly, drive a car, or cruise around in a RV?
To get to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, we flew to Salt Lake City, UT and picked up our Cruise America RV rental. We flew to Fresno, CA, and picked up our car rental to get to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon.
After flying to Miami, FL, we picked up another Cruise America RV rental and visited Biscayne and Everglades national parks.
Closer to home, we drove to Acadia in Maine, Shenandoah in Virginia, Great Smoky Mountain in Tennessee, Congaree in South Carolina, and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.
We have experienced a variety of accommodations. We’ve hooked up the RV in campgrounds available in national parks, RV parks, or at a KOA (Kampgrounds of America).
We have stayed in motels, and in spacious cabins with all the amenities. We have stayed in a bed and breakfast.
We stayed at an amazing resort in St. Thomas and took the ferry to St. John to hike in short but strenuous trails in Virgin Islands NP that took us to a little piece of heaven on earth — beautiful beaches and an aqua green ocean!
Hiking Trails Safely
Before you set off on that hike, stop in the park’s Visitor’s Center, speak to the helpful volunteers and park rangers, ask about the trails, from easy to strenuous, and pick up trail maps to take with you.
Never hike without trail maps.
Hiking with sufficient food, hydration, and a first-aid kit is critical. Pack sufficient fuel and hydration for the distance and the amount of time you’ll be on the trails.
Start your hike early in the morning and get back before dark.
Food — Pack fruit (bananas, apples), trail mix, dry fruit, almond butter/peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salty crackers, and cookies. Always carry a plastic bag(s) to take your trash with you.
Don’t trash the trails!
Hydration — Carry lots of water and your favorite sports drinks. We like to carry water hydration bottles, a hydration bladder, and a fuel belt.
We freeze all hydration the night before in the RV freezer or the freezer in the cabin we stay in so we have cold thawing frozen water and sports drinks through out the hike.
First Aid — Pack mosquito repellent, sunscreen, zinc oxide (Desitin), Band-Aids, Benadryl, Neosporin, alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, elastic gauze, tissues, and a tweezer (in case you need to pluck a tick). Although we have never carried bear spray, some hikers do.
Beware of bears and other wildlife.
Bears — We have seen a collective 6–7 bears in Yellowstone, Zion, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountain on the side of the road, on the trail, and deep in the woods.
We’ve learned what to do if we see a bear on a trail. We follow the advice of park rangers.
When hiking on the trail, especially on trails that twist and turn, and where we might not see a bear coming around the bend, we sing loudly and yell “hey bear, hey bear,” as the cowbell we hang on our backpack blares rings with every step we take.
While hiking on a trail in Great Smoky Mountains NP, we saw a big bear coming out of the woods a distance from us.
We raise our arms above our heads and yelled, “Hey bear, hey bear!” repeatedly. The bear ran back into the woods.
Bears do not like noise or the sound of humans singing or talking.
Sing along the trails in case there’s a bear, or a momma bear and her cubs around a blind turn or rustling about. They don’t like to be surprised.
If you see a bear, raise your arms up high and talk or sing loudly.
Determine the level of difficulty you want to take on, and the distance of the hike. Packing appropriate gear and wearing the right shoes is essential.
Wear hiking boots or good trail shoes, and socks.
To prevent tripping on rocky terrain, stubbing your toes, slipping on mud, and getting blisters, don’t wear open toe sandals or flip flops.
The weather can change suddenly. Tuck a rain jacket or poncho, and a small umbrella in your backpack.
Pack a light long sleeve shirt in case it gets cool and to protect your arms from the hot sun, mosquitoes, and other bugs and insects.
Wear comfortable clothes like a hiking shirt, hiking pants that you can unzip into shorts, a hiking dress, a hiking skirt, a skort, or a comfortable pair of jeans.
Apply sunscreen and wear sunglasses. A hat, cap, or visor will protect you from the sun and the rain.
A hiking/walking stick will help you to navigate rocky terrain, slippery, and muddy trails, and to hike uphill and downhill. We usually find a hiking stick or create our own from a fallen tree branch along the trails.
When our hiking trip is over, we leave the hiking sticks at the trail head for other hikers to enjoy.
Junior Ranger Programs
One of my favorite things to do at every national park is to participate in the junior ranger programs, attend educational lectures and activities, complete my activity book, get sworn in as a junior ranger, and receive my badge and patch.
A park ranger told me that a 96 year old woman participated in the junior ranger program at Grand Canyon and was sworn in as a junior ranger.
Are you a kid at heart? Then participate in junior ranger programs.
If you are traveling with children, include the junior ranger programs in your itinerary.
They will learn so much about so many things from ranger led programs and from their junior ranger activities.
Take a Hike and Go Rock Climbing
There is so much to see, do, and enjoy in our national parks. You will find kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, rock scrambling, and rock climbing.
We had so much fun horseback riding in Grand Teton NP. We had a blast rock climbing the South Bubble in Acadia NP.
Awe and Wonder
We are in awe and wonder of the magnificent canyons, trees, waterfalls, buttes, hoodoos, spectacular mountain top views, and amazing wildlife in the national parks.
They will take your breath away.
I am in awe of everything — from the beautiful flowers, to the massive sequoia trees, to the magnificent waterfalls, to the tremendous caves, to the crawling insects, to the joyfully noisy birds and crickets, to the fluttering butterflies, to the solitude of the trails, to the bigger than life wildlife.
I am paralyzed, not with fear but, with wonder and the exhilaration of a safe encounter from afar with a bear, elk, ram, deer, coyote, rattlesnake, and even almost being chased by a bison in Yellowstone.
One has to experience the national parks in living color to be inspired with wonderment and reverence.
John Muir wrote,
Keep close to Nature’s heart…climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
And I say, go for a hike and keep your childlike sense of wonder alive in America’s greatest treasure — her beautiful and majestic national parks.
Plan Your Park Visit
An awesome hike and a fun and safe trip to a national park requires good planning and packing. This is how you will enjoy hiking, and exploring nature and enjoying all of God’s creations in the parks.
So, go ahead! Start planning your trip to a national park near or far from you, and be amazed.
Let your journey to a national park begin.
Go to the National Park Service website and find a park you want to visit. Happy Trails!
Miriam Diaz-Gilbert (aka Miriam Gilbert) is a an author and ultrarunner who likes to combine visits to the national parks with an ultramarathon. My article about combining our RV trip to Biscayne and Everglades national parks with the Wildcat 100 mile ultramarathon in Pensacola, FL is published in Podium Runner. Check out our hiking adventures and encounters with wildlife in the national parks on my website. Thank you for sharing my story.